Prop 2: Treatment of Farm Animals

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, October 17, 2008

It’s California voters who will decide prop. 2, but it’s a national debate. The Humane Society of the United States is the chief sponsor.  People across the country are giving money to the campaigns.  And Oprah Winfrey dedicated an entire show to the measure: 
  Here’s what the measure says:  By 2015, egg-laying hens, pregnant pigs and veal calves must have enough room to lie down, turn around and spread their limbs or wings.  The main focus is chickens, because the roughly 300-million dollar egg industry is by far the biggest of the three.  In most egg farms today, six to eight hens are housed in small wire cages for the majority of their lives.  Each hen gets less floor space than a letter-sized piece of paper.  Under prop. 2, cages would effectively be banned. 
Hurley:“You know, if you can imagine joining 8 strangers in an elevator and spending the rest of your life there, that’s what life is like for these birds.”
Dr. Kate Hurley is a Veterinarian and Director of the UC Davis Shelter Medicine Program.  She’s a fierce supporter of prop 2.     
Hurley: “When have we as voters, had the chance to walk into a voting booth and have an impact, not only on almost 20 million animals in CA, but potentially to wake up the rest of the US?”
Hurley says studies show that when animals are tightly confined, diseases like salmonella spread more easily.  She compares it to the way a cold can spread on a crowded airplane.  Hurley already buys cage-free eggs.  And they cost about 25 percent more, according to a University of California study.   But Jennifer Fearing with the Yes on 2 Campaign says many consumers are willing to pay extra.  She says prop. 2 could give California farmers a competitive edge: 
Fearing: We’ve got Burger King, Safeway, other major companies, 350 Universities nationwide who have all instituted purchasing policies that that express a preference for eggs – cage-free eggs, free-range, organic, and we expect this market to grow dramatically.
I head to JS West and companies’ farm in Atwater - near Modesto to get an egg farmers’ take on the measure.  
Jill Benson’s family owns the farm, as well as two others in the Central Valley.  All together they have one-and-a-half million hens.  Their eggs are sold at stores like Safeway, Wal-Mart and Costco. 
Benson:“You can see all the bright red combs and wattles where the birds are eating and we’ll walk down there and just kind of get a sense of it.”
With 150-thousand birds, it’s more hen warehouse than henhouse.  Aisle after aisle, white chickens are stacked four rows high in wire cages.  As I walk by, hens poke their necks through the wire to peck at their feed.   Warm eggs roll down a conveyer belt.  The smell is surprisingly mild.  
Benson: “We have 7 in each cage and they’ve found that this space is perfect for
her to still be able to do her natural behaviors – preen, stand up, turn around, flap her wings.”

Russ: “So if proposition 2 passed, all of this would be illegal, right?” 
Benson:  That’s absolutely correct. Even if you had all the resources in the world, you wouldn’t be competitive in the marketplace.  It’s impossible to survive in business in California if Prop. 2 passes.”
Director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center Dan Sumner has studied the potential impact of prop. 2.   He says it would drive egg farmers out of the state due to increased costs – and California would import more eggs from other states.  He says the upshot is most Californians would still be buying eggs from caged chickens.  They’d just be caged outside of California.  Sumner says the measure has the agriculture industry on edge: 
Sumner: “They don’t know whether they’re next or not. Whether it’s dairy farming or growing tomatoes or you name it.  Any business has something about it that someone may not like.  And if we put those on the ballot and essentially vote to put industries out of business, that has to have a dampening effect on people deciding whether to invest in CA or somewhere else.”
Supporters of prop. 2 point out other states have implemented restrictions for pigs and veal calves, and farms haven’t shut down.  The European Union has already adopted cage-free standards.  They’ll be in place by 2012.